The Discovery Channel ordeal and an argument that’s bound to come up…
September 1, 2010James Lee was an atheist, and you know guilt-by-association is coming
As anybody with their televisions on today knows, the Discovery Channel's headquarters has been taken over by a terrorist. His name is James Lee and he has taken a small number of hostages, is in possession of a bomb, and is making demands of the Discovery Channel (that page is essentially crashed, but PZ Myers has his list of demands). These demands include that people stop having children. He's a nut.
He's also an atheist - at least, that's what his myspace page says.
This will undoubtedly bring a few Christians out of the woodwork who feel vindicated by this fact. There are so many religious people engaging in harmful, crazy activities frequently enough for us to blog about them on a daily basis. So now that an atheist has jumped off the deep end many believers will immediately engage in the guilt-by-association tactic they think we use and which they so despise. So I'll need to nip this in the bud.
First, guilt-by-association is a lousy argument. If/when atheists use it, they're wrong. But I criticize religious people all the time, so how can I say that? Quite easily.
My position is a simple one, and one that everybody should adopt: irrationality is a bad thing. I criticize irrationality whenever it rears its ugly head and I do my best to purge unreason from my own world view (and I expect others to do likewise). The reason I criticize religion and people who buy into religious claims is because nothing enshrines an opposition to facts and an aversion to reason like an emotional attachment to dogma, which is the very life-blood of religion. Since veracity of beliefs is my concern, I can criticize a Christian who is being unreasonable or an atheist who is being unreasonable - and that is precisely what I do.
I have said repeatedly that many religious people are essentially harmless. I've also said their beliefs are equally crazy as their more malicious counterparts. This continues to be true. Whether you believe a Jew who rose from the dead wants you to blow up a building or you believe he wants you to feed the poor, you still believe a Jew rose from the dead 2,000 years ago. I have never once said that all religious people are wicked. I have quite frequently said they are all wrong, and I stand by that. I've also said that a failure to correctly assess reality can warp good intentions. This is the simple truth, and James Lee personifies it.
I can criticize people like James Lee because he's flaming irrational. He holds crazy ideas that have motivated him to engage in evil actions (crazy ideas often have that effect). What has moved Lee is an honest moral concern for the well-being of the planet. This concern for the Earth has provided him with a passion that would otherwise be admirable were it not combined with some ludicrous ideas both about how to save the world and, more importantly, how to achieve those goals.
So for all you people who are about to try the guilt-by-association tactic, you could start by explaining how atheism entails a demonstrably bad idea. Atheism doesn't come attached to any dogma or prescription for beliefs or behaviors. It means only that someone does not believe in god. Compare that to religion which comes attached to a long list of irrational claims and encourages the believer to maintain them in the face of contrary evidence (proverbs 3:5), not through a solid case of their own, but instead by faith alone - just believing. It's probably the way that Lee arrived at his political conclusions, and faith in the hands of an atheist is no less embarrassing.
If anything, this ordeal with James Lee should remind us how dangerous unreasonable beliefs can be when combined with strong passion. Religious faith is a foundry for that combination, which is why it draws the attention of outspoken critical thinkers. I criticize James Lee because he was crazy. The apologists will say the same thing of Christians who do insane things. The thing is, there will always be an unspoken caveat for the faithful: "That person is crazy" they will say. "But believing people rise from the dead is sane, and the same resurrected Canaanite tells me he wants different things." The antidote for crazy beliefs is to criticize them consistently, not to advocate some different crazy belief.
There is no caveat for me, as I detest irrationality across the board. James Lee is crazy. Period. Just like believing a Canaanite Jew walked on water.
James Lee has been shot, though it seems as though he is still alive. The crisis, however, seems to be over.